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Commentary: The merits of a meat tax — for people and the planet

processed meats
processed meats - Contributed

Meat has been taking a lot of flak lately. Veganism and vegetarianism are more popular than ever. People are more aware and more concerned about meat’s adverse effects on the environment, on our health, and on the ethical treatment of animals. Governments occasionally impose what is known as a “sin tax” on undesirable or harmful goods. Has the time come to impose a sin tax on meat?

The motivation for a sin tax on some meats — red meats and processed meats — is threefold: Those meats are far more harmful to the environment than other foods; they have significant adverse health effects; and a tax on those meats could generate revenue and decrease consumption. Therefore, it makes sense for a sin tax to be imposed on red meats and processed meats.

According to an Oxford University research group led by economist Max Roser, livestock occupies 77 per cent of the world’s agricultural land while only supplying 17 per cent of our calories. Furthermore, livestock provides just 33 per cent of our dietary protein, and plants provide the rest.

This means we’re trading calories and protein for the luxury of meat in our diets. In 2009, Statistics Canada reported that Canadians ate roughly 60 kilograms of red meat — equivalent to about 1,000 hamburgers or about 200 steaks. Roser’s data show that it would not be feasible for the world to adopt Canada’s current meat-heavy diet, given the Earth’s habitable land area. These facts present issues in solving world hunger, given our current inefficient consumption.

The data by Roser’s group also show that beef is food’s chief threat to sustainability. Beef requires just over one square metre of land for every gram of protein yielded, while other animal products such as pork (0.13 m 2 /g ), poultry (0.08 m 2 /g ), and eggs (0.05 m 2 /g) require far less land per gram of protein. Plant foods such as fresh produce (0.1 m 2 /g ), wheat (0.04 m 2 /g ), rice (0.02 m 2 /g), and legumes (0.01 m 2 /g) require even less land on average.

Mass deforestation (for example, of the Amazonrainforest) is now necessary to grow the soy, corn, and grain crops to feed livestock. But feeding livestock to produce meat is a highly inefficient process. The ecological efficiency rule of thumb for animals is that the food chain is only 10 per cent efficient. This means every 10 kilograms of feed produces roughly one kilogram of meat. It makes sense for us to cut out the intermediary and just eat the plants, or at least decrease the amount of meat in our

diets for the sake of efficiency.

Perhaps equally convincing are the harmful effects of red and processed meats on our health. In a 2015 report by the World Health Organization, red meats were classified as Class 2A carcinogens, meaning they’re likely causes of cancer in humans.

Processed meats were listed as Class 1 carcinogens — lumped in with tobacco and asbestos — meaning they’re known to cause cancer. The report generated a significant backlash from industry and government, since many were upset that meat was compared to tobacco.

However, the WHO’s classifications were determined by the availability of scientific evidence for carcinogenic properties, not the degree of severity of meat’s unhealthiness. The link between these meats and cancer in humans is now well-established.

Despite all this, some still oppose a meat tax. Sylvain Charlebois, dean of management and scholar in food policy and distribution at Dalhousie University, argued in his column last month that a meat sin tax is immoral, unhelpful and regressive. Prof. Charlebois’s perspective, though, seems at odds with the public interest, given the multitude of problems with animal agriculture.

On the contrary, several studies on a similar sugar sin tax on soft drinks have shown that it leads to a decrease in consumption of those products in those jurisdictions. One study published in the Journal of Public Economics demonstrated that a sugar sin tax moderately decreased soft-drink consumption.

If this were true for meat, even if consumers substituted with other animal-based alternatives, we’d likely see improvements in sustainability and health.

Another study published in the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research showed that 43 per cent of a sugar tax was passed on to consumers. This means that producers like Coca-Cola aren’t absorbing the tax to maintain demand for their drinks. If the same were true of a meat tax, it should drive the price of meat up and the demand down.

Studies examining how meat consumption responds to price changes are few. In a book called Managerial Economics published in 2002, beef demand was found to be elastic — meaning consumers respond by buying less meat when the price rises.

This makes sense, since meat is a luxury. It’s

not addictive like cigarettes and alcohol, so a tax on it should be more effective in reducing consumption than the classical sin taxes on those other products.

It also shouldn’t be regressive — it shouldn’t disproportionately affect the poor. Despite Charlebois’s appeal to food’s necessity for life, meat, in the quantity currently consumed in Canada, isn’t necessary for life. Many affordable alternatives exist, and societies that eat less meat tend to be healthier.

The ethics of a meat sin tax are polarizing.

Some argue that it is immoral to tax food since it’s necessary for life and because it’s ingrained in our culture and traditions. However, when meat has such demonstrated harmful impacts on health and the environment, the government has the right and the responsibility to affect meat consumption. The meat tax could be revenue-neutral: Revenue could be used to offset health-care costs, to fund green infrastructure, and to support educational nutrition programs, for example.

Instead of calling it a “tax” on meat, we could rephrase it as a “lifting” of the massive government subsidies on agriculture in Canada. In 2011, the Canadian government gave $7 billion in subsidies to agriculture, mostly for meat and dairy. Lifting this subsidy would compel the meat industry to either become more efficient or reduce production and raise prices.

The onus is on researchers and governments to give more consideration to raising the price of meat. Vegans and carnivores alike are all too aware of the limitations of and burdens on our health-care system.

Simply blaming consumers for poor dietary choices is unwise, given the social determinants of health. Governments have a responsibility to use all policy levers to improve population health, but with an eye on sound economic policy.

An aging population, the rising incidence of chronic disease, and the advent of climate change compel us to look for novel ways to tackle our civilization’s biggest issues. Let’s shine a light on the merits of a meat tax.

-MASON MAXWELL - Mason Maxwell lives in Halifax. He is a senior student in mathematics at Dalhousie University.

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